Updated: Jul 7, 2021
When we think of plastic pollution, we often think about whole plastic bags or water bottles floating in bodies of water. However, there is another threat associated with plastic pollution: microplastics.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5 square millimeters. Microplastics can come in the form of small beads found in personal care products or as microfibers shed from synthetic fabric in clothing, these are examples of primary sources of microplastics. Secondary microplastics come in the form of broken down pieces of larger plastic such as straws, food packaging, and more. They are often invisible to the naked eye, but they can still cause significant harm to the surrounding environment and human health.
Once microplastics enter the ecosystem, they bioaccumulate and biomagnify as they are consumed by different organisms throughout the environment. Bioaccumulation means that organisms consume microplastics faster than they are able to expel them. Biomagnification refers to how microplastics and other toxic substances move and grow throughout the food chain. For example, if one fish consumes microplastics, those microplastics will bioaccumulate in the organism, once that fish is consumed by a predator the effects of those toxic substances will biomagnify as the organism moves through the food chain.
Human health is impacted by microplastics as well. According to researchers it is estimated that we consume approximately 5 grams of plastic per week, roughly equivalent to the size of a credit card. And on a larger scale National Geographic reports that we unknowingly consume 39,000 to 52,000 plastic particles through our drinking water and food, the number is even higher when accounting for microplastics that are inhaled.
A lot is still unknown about microplastics. Scientists continue to research how microplastics alter a body of water’s geochemistry , and the long term health effects also remain largely unknown. Microplastics themselves are not new, but we are only just beginning to fully understand the scale of their impact.
One of the major issues with microplastics is that we still don’t quite know what to do with them. They are too small to efficiently clean up, we can’t avoid them in our daily lives, and we are still in the research phase of how they impact both the health of natural ecosystems and our own human health. So what can we do about the microplastics problem?
Well, the most direct way to reduce microplastics in the environment is to simply reduce plastic usage. By reducing and reusing our goods and cutting out single-use plastics, we are taking a small amount of plastic out of production and therefore out of the ecosystem.
Changing habits and lifestyle is certainly not easy, but if the task of reducing plastic usage is daunting, know that you’re not alone. We are all learning how we impact the environment and how we can help improve the natural ecosystems around us. As a first step, you can make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of single use plastics in your daily life and check out Seaside Sustainability’s Instagram and Facebook for more tips on reducing your environmental impact.